Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Question of Fan Entitlement and the Sanctity of Artistic Vision

There has been a lot of discussion and controversy about whether the ending of Mass Effect 3 should change or not and although I made my opinion of the ending quite clearly on my previous blog post, this post is not a discussion on the quality of the ending but a discussion on whether changing the ending violates the artistic vision of the creator and is a victory of fan entitlement.

Now I make a declaration that I consider myself an amateur artist who writes music for fun. Due to this perspective as an amateur artist, I’m actually very sympathetic to the idea that you create art as an expression of your own personal vision (or if the work is collaborative the collective vision of the artist involves). Although you hope that other people share your vision and would like your work, in the end you create art to express your personal vision and not the vision of other people expectation has on you. I honestly believe that an artist should have free reign to create whatever art they want and if it different to what other people want and you are willing to accept the responsibilities and consequences that is different to what people want (such as less people would buy your work of art or previous fans would be disillusion by the difference in artistic vision) then so be it. I guess from my personal taste, I always admired the whole story about Bob Dylan going electric whilst the crowds were booing him because he remained true to his artistic vision despite criticism from fans and audience.

The role of the audience is simply to accept or reject the vision of the creator and make a choice on whether to purchase or not purchase the artwork. I don’t believe the artist should be force to have the audience to become part of the creative process.

I recognised that sometimes commercial factor to impact on the artistic vision of the work because everyone must make a living. Nevertheless it is still up to the artist discretion to determine how much commercial and accessible their artwork is and how much artistic vision they want to sacrifice to achieve that (sometimes this means having your artistic vision being filtered by the people funding the development and distribution of your work such as the whole Bioware and EA partnership).

So in my opinion, if Bioware are really proud of the ending and read all the criticism of the ending and still maintain that the ending is still good and are willing to accept the consequences of fan discontent (such as potential lost in future sales and PR damage) and decided to keep the ending as it is then that is their prerogative and that is their right.  They do not have an obligation to change the ending simply because the fans are unhappy. Even though I personally dislike the ending, I would personally admire any artist who remains true to their artistic vision despite massive criticism (even if I question the ability of the artist to evaluate their own work in the process)

This is why I do not support one of the fans complaining to Federal Trade Commission because this is bordering on supporting artistic censorship. Even if there was false advertisement with the ending (which I’m not entirely convince of because the choice do change the ending, it just change the ending in a personally frustratingly small way), I personally believe that playing and messing with expectation of the audience is a legitimate artistic statement and that shouldn’t be censored. I mean I didn't expect Million Dollar Baby to suddenly switch and become a euthanasia movie or Dusk to dawn to turn into a vampire slasher movie out of nowhere and I'm quite sure there are plenty of examples of storytelling where the story suddenly change theme.

If the point of Mass Effect 3 was to bait players that choice matters and then pulling the rug at the end, then I believe that is a legitimate artistic statement even if I personally think it was done poorly. I believe it is the risk that audience take when purchasing any work of art that the work may not match your taste and your expected quality and the artistic work shouldn’t be censored or change because of that.

I also don’t believe that the interactive nature of video games means that the audience are now the creative partner of the game.  This is because each choice made in the game was designed by the artist and not designed by the audience. It’s essentially the artist creating a branched narrative and creating multiple plot point and this has been done before in choose your own adventures books.

However, does this mean that all the people who are unhappy with the ending and support a change in ending are guilty of fan entitlement and are trying to infringe on artistic freedom?

In my personal opinion the answer is no. Although the artists are entitled to release whatever work they want and no one should force them to change the ending. The audience doesn’t have to accept or like whatever work the artist is releasing. I personally believe that the audience of any form of art are entitled to criticise the work of art (as long as the criticism is respectful and constructive) and to reject the vision of the artist especially if they paid money for it.  Some people argued that suggesting the ending to be change to be taking the criticism too far but I disagree because the best kind of criticism isn’t just pointing out the problems of the work but to suggest solutions to the problem. Suggesting that the game would be improved if the ending is change is a legitimate constructive criticism of a work of art and not fan entitlement. Suggesting that if the ending won’t change, you would stop purchasing future products from Bioware shouldn’t be dismiss as whinging because the audience are allowed to vote with their wallets.

Most artist (although not all especially the more egocentric artist) recognise that they aren’t perfect and often during the creative process they will show their work to creative partners, other work colleagues, friends and family etc and ask their opinion on their work of art. They often receive constructive criticism and then the artist will then filter out the criticism that they don’t agree but often take in board criticism and suggestions that they recognise are valid and then make alterations to their work as a result of that.

In my mind, I don’t see this as different to Bioware out of their free will decided to change the ending as a result of reacting to constructive criticism from fans and taking on board suggestion and critique that they believe are valid after reflecting on the criticism. Sure the criticisms are from strangers that they have never met but in my opinion, a valid criticism from a stranger is just as valid as a criticism from a friend or family or work colleague or creative partner.

I believe that people make assumptions that if Bioware change the ending, they would be giving in to fan entitlement but this precludes the possibility that Bioware could sincerely change an ending because they believe the change would improve the game and story after reflecting in all the criticism they received. If you believe that the artist have free reign to do whatever they want with their work then surely it is within the artist right to change their work if they wanted to.

Some people may have a problem of changing the work after it has already been publicly released. After all, my scenario I mention before was about the artist changing their work after reflecting on criticism before the work was released and during the draft stage of production. However, in my mind this shouldn’t be an issue because this happens plenty of times without much criticism (sometimes the content of the change has been criticise and is controversial but not at the concept that the first public release should be the final release)

It’s not uncommon for works of art to be re-released with changes in content. Sometimes the changes is there to reflect the “true” artistic vision and reverse executive meddling changes such as releasing the director’s cut of the film that sometimes have a different ending (such as Blade runner) or for a musician to re-release the album with the correct tracklisting. It could be an art work is re-release to take advantage of modern production technique such as the controversial “special edition” of Star Wars (I know there are debates whether George Lucas has the right to make alteration to the original movie, in my opinion he has the right even if I disagree with all the changes he made) and numerous remastered and remixed and sometimes re-recorded release of earlier work (such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells).

Lastly it’s not unprecedented for artist to re-released work with alteration as a reaction to criticism from fans and critics. Highlander 2: The Quickening was re-released in 1995 where the director has changed and removed all reference to the immortals being aliens which was the most controversial aspect of the film. In music, King Crimson re-released In The Court Of Crimson King and cut out 2:30 minutes of the widely criticised song Moonchild and relegated the original version as a “bonus track”. In literature, Sherlock Holmes death was retcon and removed from canon after public complaint. Of course in video games, the ending of Fallout 3 was altered in a DLC. Therefore I don’t see any reason why the story of Mass Effect 3 is sacrosanct and can’t be changed when many other arts have change after public complaint.

In the end I agree with the premise that the artist shouldn’t be enslaved to the wants of the fans of the series and should have artistic freedom to do what they want with the series. However the fans have the right to not accept and like the vision of the artist and should be allowed to suggest a change in ending without being labelled “entitled” in the process.

Whatever choice Bioware makes whether it is to change the ending or keep the ending, it should be respected or at least accepted because it is there work and the final say should rest with them. I personally support the change in ending but if the ending isn’t change, I may well stopped buying Bioware product because their idea on what constitute as good storytelling contradicts with my idea of what is a good resolution to the series but I won’t begrudge them of their choice to stick with their own vision.

If they do choose to change the ending, then I hope they do it out of sincere desire to improve the ending (therefore maintain their artistic vision/integrity) after reflecting on all the criticism they received instead of sense of obligation to “give the fans what they want”. After all, you can pay someone to change the ending but you can't pay someone to care and put their heart and soul into making the ending right.

It has to be done by someone in the writing team who was personally and professionally dissatisfied with the ending made and take this task with the attitude of redeeming the ending. I feel that is the only way it would work.

If they are not willing to put their heart and soul into changing the ending then it may well be better off that the ending remains this way because in my mind the remade ending may well makes things even worst and this may well be the case of being careful of what you wish for because it may come true. After all, if a lot of people are unsatisfied with the current ending, what makes you think that the remade ending would be any better or improvement especially when the writers are remaking the ending not out of passionate pride to improve the ending but doing it only on a sense of obligation?  

If the same people who primarily worked on the original ending and was proud of it then were given the task to change the ending they were proud of (there have been comments from some writers who express that point of view), well the results could be absolutely disastrous because you having writers who clearly gritting their team writing an ending that they don’t care for and have no pride for and it’s going to reflect the quality of the ending the fans receive.  

For all those people who support a change in ending. I believe those people should pull out their charm points (used constructive criticism to appeal to their desire to release an artistically respected work) or your intimidate points (appeal to Bioware self interest about future loss of sales) to try and persuade Bioware to change the ending. However at the same time they should recognise that in the end its Bioware choice and not the fans to whether to change the ending.

No comments:

Post a Comment